Northeast Times

Plea deal reached in illegal school enrollment trial

In the end, all parties got something out of Ham­let Gar­cia’s guilty plea in a Nor­ris­town courtroom on Jan. 28.

Gar­cia, the North­east Phil­adelphia man ac­cused of il­leg­ally en­rolling his daugh­ter in a sub­urb­an pub­lic school, avoided a po­ten­tial felony theft con­vic­tion and pris­on time by ad­mit­ting that he lied to school of­fi­cials about the 6-year-old girl’s ad­dress. He pleaded to a sum­mary of­fense, not much dif­fer­ent than a traffic tick­et.

Mean­while, the Lower Mo­re­land School Dis­trict got its money back — al­most $11,000 in costs that the dis­trict claimed it had in­curred to edu­cate the kinder­garten pu­pil for the en­tire 2011-12 aca­dem­ic year.

And school-choice ad­voc­ates from as far as Cali­for­nia and Flor­ida got some more pub­li­city for their cause: that ZIP code bound­ar­ies or county lines shouldn’t pre­vent par­ents from seek­ing bet­ter pub­lic edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren.

“What happened here should nev­er be a crime,” Ham­let Gar­cia, 42, said in­side the Mont­gomery County court­house after the hear­ing. “No fam­ily should face sev­en years in jail, not even a day in jail, by provid­ing edu­ca­tion to a child in a pub­lic school. It’s wrong.”

Gar­cia’s lead de­fense at­tor­ney, Ri­cardo Corona, traveled from Miami for the hear­ing, while school-choice act­iv­ist Glor­ia Romero traveled from Cali­for­nia. She is a former state sen­at­or in that state.

As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Steven Latzer ne­go­ti­ated the plea deal for the pro­sec­u­tion. Gar­cia’s fath­er-in-law, Grigori Sofitchouk, pleaded guilty to the same sum­mary charge for his role in the de­cep­tion and will have to con­trib­ute to the resti­tu­tion pay­ment of $10,753. The pro­sec­u­tion dropped charges against Gar­cia’s wife, Olesia, 34.

“(Gar­cia) has ad­mit­ted that he wrong­fully en­rolled his child in the Lower Mo­re­land School Dis­trict,” Latzer said. “That’s all this case was ever about and all it ever will be about.”

From a leg­al stand­point, Ham­let Gar­cia fared no bet­ter than if he had ac­cep­ted the pro­sec­u­tion’s of­fer of a re­hab­il­it­at­ive pro­gram in Novem­ber 2012. Dur­ing a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing then, the hus­band and wife in­dic­ated through an­oth­er at­tor­ney their will­ing­ness to pay back the money and serve pro­ba­tion. Upon com­ple­tion of the pro­gram, they could’ve got­ten the case cleared from their crim­in­al re­cords.

In­stead, one month later, Ham­let Gar­cia fired his law­yer and called a news con­fer­ence to re­claim his in­no­cence to felony theft of ser­vices charges. Play­ing both sides of the fence, he in­sisted that his daugh­ter leg­ally at­ten­ded the school, but he also ar­gued that the law pre­vent­ing her from cross­ing county lines to at­tend school was un­just.

After last week’s hear­ing, Gar­cia made sim­il­ar po­ten­tially con­tra­dict­ory re­marks to the news me­dia. One mo­ment, he stated that he still felt his daugh­ter was “leg­ally eli­gible” to at­tend the Lower Mo­re­land school. As he con­tin­ued, he de­clared that the law it­self is bad.

“We made a point today. It was al­ways a civil mat­ter, not a crim­in­al mat­ter,” Gar­cia said. “I’m not happy with the res­ult one hun­dred per­cent today, but I’m happy to live in a coun­try that I have at least the right to fight.”

Mont­gomery County au­thor­it­ies first ar­res­ted Ham­let and Olesia Gar­cia in Au­gust 2012 months after Olesia’s step­moth­er blew the whistle on the ad­dress dis­crep­ancy, pro­sec­utors have said. The couple en­rolled the girl at Pine Road Ele­ment­ary School be­fore the 2011-12 aca­dem­ic year and used a Hunt­ing­don Val­ley ad­dress on re­gis­tra­tion forms.

The ad­dress they used was the home of Sofitchouk and his wife, who is Olesia Gar­cia’s step­moth­er. The fol­low­ing spring, the step­moth­er con­tac­ted the school to re­port that the school had er­ro­neously sent mail to her home, in­stead of the girl’s par­ents.

The school hired a private in­vest­ig­at­or who de­term­ined that the girl did not live at the ad­dress re­por­ted on the en­roll­ment forms. The in­vest­ig­at­or fur­ther com­piled evid­ence that the girl lived with her fath­er in the Somer­ton sec­tion of Phil­adelphia, mere blocks out­side the Lower Mo­re­land bound­ary.

When ques­tioned by school of­fi­cials, the Gar­cias claimed that they sep­ar­ated in 2011 and that the girl and her moth­er were liv­ing with Sofitchouk when the girl began at­tend­ing Pine Road. Ham­let and Olesia Gar­cia fur­ther claimed that they re­united the fol­low­ing spring, but de­cided to leave their daugh­ter at Pine Road to fin­ish the school year.

The dis­trict at­tor­ney ar­gued in court fil­ings that oth­er fam­ily mem­bers con­tra­dicted the Gar­cias’ res­id­ency claims. The pro­sec­utor also claimed that the Gar­cias went on a “weeklong trop­ic­al va­ca­tion” to­geth­er to the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic dur­ing their pur­por­ted sep­ar­a­tion. And in an un­re­lated civil law­suit against SEPTA in Janu­ary 2012, the Gar­cias al­legedly re­por­ted that they both lived at their Somer­ton ad­dress.

In a Septem­ber 2012 in­ter­view with the North­east Times, Olesia Gar­cia stated that she op­er­ates an in­de­pend­ent in­sur­ance agency, while her hus­band works at the agency. Their daugh­ter has at­ten­ded a sub­urb­an private school since fall 2012. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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